The reference check questions that you ask can be very helpful for the hiring process. They can help you work out if a potential employee will be an excellent fit and whether their previous work performance is in line with your needs and expectations.
It’s quite normal when you’re reviewing candidates to want to make up your mind right after you’ve had a chat with them in their interview.
However, you might be surprised to learn that according to the NSW ICAC, between 20-30% of job applications contain some form of false information. This could range from minor omissions of information to some serious false information.
Effective reference checks can help mitigate the risk of fraudulent applications and increase the likelihood of selecting a candidate who is the best possible fit for your company.
What Is a Reference Check?
A reference check is a part of the hiring process where your candidate nominates either employment or personal referees. Reference checks provide you with an opportunity to learn more about the candidate’s character, their work history, job performance and responsibilities.
Typically, an employment referee will be a direct supervisor or manager. In some situations, colleagues who worked closely with your candidate may also be appropriate.
In a reference check, the questions asked are usually related to the character and integrity of the candidate, productivity, communication skills, as well as the candidate’s strengths and areas for development.
While you want to make sure you can gain the most valuable information as possible out of your reference check questions, sometimes it can be hard to find out details beyond basic facts. This can be due to time constraints or a potential lack of in-depth or honest responses from the referees.
Why Should You Conduct a Reference Check?
Reference checks are essential so that you can find out more about a candidate’s career background and their suitability for the role.
A reference check helps validate the information provided by the candidate and establish previous links back to a previous employer.
This is most important if there is employee misconduct or fraud. It may warrant an investigation into the employee and the ability to trace the employee’s employment history is helpful.
On the other hand, it can also help distinguish candidates who performed well during the interview but may not have the qualities or skills that you need for the candidate to be successful in the role.
Key Considerations When Conducting a Reference Check
There are several factors that you need to consider before conducting your reference checks on candidates. Depending on the role, you may encounter a range of different challenges – here are 5 common challenges that commonly occur in the recruitment process.
1. Documentation Method
Will the reference check be conducted through an online form or via phone? Consider what role you’re hiring and which of these two methods is more suitable. Sometimes a staged approach can also be appropriate e.g. you conduct phone reference checks as a follow up to the written reference.
2. Consent from Referees
Be wary that some candidates may not have necessarily sought for permission for someone to be their referee. It’s important to check with these referees that they have offered consent to be a referee.
3. Limited Work Experience
Usually, when you’re interviewing university graduates, some may have limited work experience. In this situation, ask for a character referee if a professional referee is not available. This will let you assess if the candidate would be an excellent fit for the role, which quite often is the most crucial aspect.
4. Timing of Your Reference Checks
Reference checks tend to occur towards the end of the hiring process, after the interview stage and when you’ve narrowed down to a few preferred candidates. This means that you’re only spending time on candidates who are most suitable for the role and likely to be selected.
5. False References
It’s pretty standard for referees to talk about all of a candidate’s strengths, especially if they had a good working relationship. But it’s also pretty standard for them to be hesitant to talk about any weaknesses that the candidate might have. Asking a reference check question like “Can you suggest any areas for improvement for the candidate?” can be helpful to draw out constructive responses from the referee.
Conversely, it’s also essential to establish the credibility of referees and the relationship they have with the candidate. Given that lying on CVs is rife and potentially illegal, it’s crucial you verify the references provided are legitimate. This includes confirming who they are, how long they’ve known the person and what their relationship is with the candidate.
At VerifyNow, we ascertain these details from the applicant and cross-check this against what the referee has provided to see if it is consistent.
How To Conduct a Reference Check
The best way to create your reference check questions is by setting up a structure that lets you standardise the process. This will allow you to form a baseline across all of your applicants and make it easier to compare their strengths and weaknesses. Two important elements are setting the right criteria for the role and evaluating credibility.
1. Set Criteria
Make sure that you establish criteria of what is an unacceptable, acceptable or excellent answer to the reference check questions. Think of this as a marking criteria that lets you compare each referee’s responses.
It’s essential to have a system that lets you evaluate the credibility and integrity of the referees provided. This ensures that your reference checks are worthwhile and valuable to your hiring process. Be aware that some candidates may provide a colleague or friend rather than a supervisor to have a more favourable reference!
Reference Check Questions
You need to write questions that target receiving the information that’s the most relevant and vital to you in your hiring process.
When you’re asking your reference check questions, it’s a good idea to start broad and ask more general questions about the candidate. Once you’ve established the value of that specific referee, narrowing down these questions to the particular details that you’d like to get to know is a good idea.
Many businesses are now shifting towards automated online reference checks as a great initial method of conducting reference checks at scale. Responses can often help with triggering deeper and more specific questions that may be better performed on the phone.
What Type of Reference Check Questions Should I Be Asking?
When asking your reference check questions, you should ask open-ended questions to obtain more detail and insightful responses. These are questions that start with: why, who, where, how, what, when, and tell me.
After you have confirmed the referee’s availability and willingness to complete the reference check, you can start to narrow your reference check questions. Here are some examples of the types of questions that you could ask:
- How would you describe the candidate’s reliability and punctuality?
- What are some of the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses? Could you describe them?
- How did the candidate perform in a team environment?
- How has the candidate responded to interpersonal conflict?
- Would you rehire the candidate if given the opportunity?
- How do they relate to challenging or stressful situations?
- What do you believe are the motivating factors for this candidate?
- What results have you seen when they needed to make decisions under pressure?
- Can you tell me about a time when they had to take a broad or long term perspective on an issue?
- Can you describe a time when they had a difficult goal to achieve?
- What did you observe when they were faced with a change in a project or in the environment?
- Can you tell me about a time they had to convey complex information to a group?
- Tell me about their approach to prioritising tasks or managing a heavy workload.
Below is a sample of an online reference report with a variety of reference check questions provided to VerifyNow clients:
When conducting reference checks, remember the skills and qualities the role requires and to ask questions that will reveal this information. Common competencies that employers are looking for include:
- Conflict resolution
- Customer service/management
As with any hiring process, the reference check process is one that has a few things that you should keep in mind.
It’s imperative to not ask questions that may be in breach of Australia’s anti discrimination laws. Questions that refer to specific personal details like the candidate’s marital status, gender, religion, age, sexual orientation or other sensitive matters that are irrelevant to their ability to perform are not appropriate.
Furthermore, by extending a professional courtesy and protecting the candidate’s privacy, you can create trust with candidates. You can do this by asking whether they’ve informed their previous or current employer of their job search. This is also an opportunity for you to confirm the current or previous employer’s contact information.
By asking the right questions, you can ensure that you’re picking the best candidate for the role.
This isn’t always the most straightforward task when you’re already trying to juggle a hiring process with your daily tasks. It’s a good idea to take advantage of employment screening agencies that have the expertise to conduct a thorough reference check (amongst other checks) to better help you with scaling your hiring process.
At VerifyNow, we have a particular focus on quality screening (rather than ticking a box) that can help screen your candidates to ensure that they’re the best person for the job. If you’re looking for assistance with pre-employment screening, get in touch with us to find out how we can help you.
Disclaimer: Please note that every effort has been made to ensure that the information provided in this guide is accurate. You should note, however, that the information is intended as a guide only, providing an overview of general information available to businesses. This guide is not intended to be an exhaustive source of information and should not be seen to constitute legal or recruiting advice. You should, where necessary, seek a second professional opinion for any legal or recruiting issues raised in your business affairs.